Smooth sailing on a Caribbean cruise Voyage: There were so many activities on the ship, the children didn't want the week to end.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ABOARD THE MAJESTY OF THE SEAS -- It's past 10 p.m., and Melanie still wants to party. She doesn't care that it's way past her bedtime -- she's just 6 -- or that she looks ready to drop from exhaustion. She's having too much fun at Kids Connection, the children's center on board ship, to do something as boring as sleep.

She begs to stay up for the late-night program that begins when the regular evening activities end. Parents pay $4 an hour for the service, but Melanie figures it's well worth the price since a pillow fight and movie are on the agenda. I'll be back in an hour, I tell her. Melanie skips away without even saying goodbye.

Talk about kid heaven.

After a week cruising the western Caribbean on a Royal Caribbean ship, I think this may be it -- at least for my youngest child and her two cousins, 6 and 9. My sister and my mother joined me and the kids on this trip, and while my mother couldn't wait for the cruise to be over, the kids wanted it to go on. And on and on.

Perhaps that's because there were more than 300 playmates among the nearly 2,700 people on our ship. They were busy jumping in the pool, ordering Shirley Temples (7-Up with a splash of Grenadine), having scavenger hunts, painting T-shirts and parading around with their young counselors.

Of course, there also was the opportunity to order anything in any amount from the menu at breakfast, lunch and dinner, including, for a one-time $15 charge, all the soda they could drink.

"That was a real attraction for my 15-year-old son," said Dennis Packer, a Los Angeles detective, who said that another plus was the teens-only disco on the ship. No wonder the teens on board -- there were 130 -- seemed so happy, hanging on the basketball court or in Flashes, their disco.

"I made friends with kids from all over," said 17-year-old Earl Evangelista, who is from suburban Chicago and was taking home a list of addresses and phone numbers from Texas to Florida.

The fun didn't stop for the junior cruisers in port, either. They'd hit the beach with their parents, go for hair-raising banana-boat rides in Haiti, climb waterfalls in Jamaica, snorkel with huge stingrays in the Cayman Islands, shop in Cozumel.

Here's how the week shaped up for one 6-year-old (and cousins Michael and Kyle Fieldman):

Sunday

So much action everywhere! Melanie is thrilled, especially when she gets a personal greeting from one of the youth counselors as soon as she boards the ship. The tiny cabin is a big hit: Not only does Melanie need a ladder to get to her bed, but it folds down from the wall.

Tuesday

We spend the day on the beach at Royal Caribbean's private island in Haiti. Nine-year-old Michael balks at going to the kids' program but has a good time after he gets there. The high point: winning the water balloon fight (with their parents) that had been organized by the youth staff. The low point: a banana-boat ride behind a motor boat that went much too fast for Melanie's taste. She screams the entire time, to her cousins' chagrin. The trio stays up with us for the midnight buffet. They are impressed by the ice and chocolate sculptures.

Thursday

We dock on Grand Cayman Island. While Grandma relaxes on board, the rest of us head to a government-run sea-turtle farm where the kids hold some of the turtles. We take a boat to Stingray City, the famed Cayman area where you can snorkel. Michael doesn't want to get out of the water; the younger ones are reluctant to get in. They are afraid of the stingrays, and they don't like being in the water so far from shore.

I'm impressed by all seven counselors who supervised the children (from age 3 up) for typically two hours at a stretch. Not only do they have experience as teachers or camp directors, but they clearly are having as much fun as the youngsters.

Friday

We arrive in Cozumel. Exhausted, my 6-year-old nephew opts to stay on board with a baby-sitter while his brother snorkels with us in Chankanaab Bay. We're close to shore this time, and Melanie is so entranced by the fish she doesn't want to get out of the water for lunch.

Saturday

Our last day at sea. The kids put on a talent show. They're PTC convinced we'll win the $10,000 prize playing bingo this afternoon. Too bad they are wrong. At dinner, they get hugs from our waiters (especially after the tips). Later, Melanie cries when it's time to leave Kids Connection for the last time.

Sunday

Back in Miami, and the dock is crowded and hot. I want to get to the airport; Melanie wants to know how soon we can cruise again.

When you go

The late fall -- after hurricane season -- is cruise bargain season with most lines, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival. Some weekly packages for kids are as low as $99, or just $49 for a three-day trip. Disney Cruise Lines, meanwhile, is offering early-booking discounts for those who want to be aboard the line's first ship next spring. The deals may be particularly enticing for families whose children are young and therefore not bound by school calendars.

Cruises typically are booked through travel agents. We used the Miami-based Cruise Line Inc., which can offer substantial discounts because of its high-volume business. Call the Cruise Line Inc. at 800-777-0707, or World Wide Cruises, another large cruise discount agency, at 800-882-9000.

If you prefer a local travel agent, choose one who is a cruise expert, a member of Cruise Lines International Association. (Be sure to ask if they have ever cruised with children or grandchildren.)

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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